Article #10: Plant Products And Effects by Patrick Malone
Here is a list of some plant products sold in health food stores and their potential harmful effects:
Contain amygdalin, otherwise known as Laetrile. Hydrogen cyanide is released when swallowed. Can cause severe headaches, vomiting, weakness, disorientation and death.
Supposed to be used as a flea dip but often not labeled as such. Killed a young Colorado woman and caused sickness in two other women who took it trying to induce abortion. Center for Disease Control in Atlanta is investigating.
Irritate digestive tract.
Buckhorn bark, senna leaves, yellow dock root, jalap root, aloe leaves
All powerful laxatives that can cause diarrhea.
Shave grass or horsetail
Contains nicotine. In grazing animals has caused loss pf appetite and muscular control, diarrhea, labored breathing, convulsions, coma and death.
Burdock root tea
In one case, doctors reported a person drank half a cup and experienced blurred vision, dry mouth, inability to urinate and hallucinations. Other common plants with euphoric or hallucinogenic effects when smoked or drunk in tea include catnip, juniper, lobelia and wormwood. Lobelia can be fatal.
Can cause severe allergic reactions in persons allergic to ragweed, asters or chrysanthemums. Goldenrod, marigold and yarrow tea also should be avoided by people with such allergies.
St. John's wort
Can produce a bad skin rash in conjunction with exposure to sunlight if drunk as a tea.
It was banned by FDA in 1976 but now is considered possibly okay as a tea.
Devil's Claw Root
Should be avoided in pregnancy; has properties similar to the hormone that induces labor.
Can cause swollen and painful breasts, also high blood pressure with regular use of large amounts (several grams a day).
Contains coumarin, banned by FDA as food additive; sold in health food stores to fix scent of sachets and potpourris. Caused liver damage and growth retardations when fed to animals.
Snakeroot, mandrake root
Sometimes sold as ginseng. Both considered poisonous. Mandrake root contains a hypnotic similar to belladonna. Snakeroot contains reserpine, which causes lowered blood pressure and "possibly severe depression.
Arnica or wolfsbane
Can produce violent digestive inflammation, muscular weakness, collapse and death.
Causes vomiting; overdose can be fatal.
Berries are the most poisonous and have killed children. Leaves and stems used in tea also contain toxins that in large doses can cause muscle and blood vessels to contract, leading to shock and heart arrest.
In fairness says Rob McCaleb, lab director at Celestial Seasonings, several points need to be made in herbs behalf:
Practically any medicine is toxic in large enough doses. The same is true for medicinal herbs. Foods can be toxic too: Prune juice is a well-known laxative, though not labeled as such, and it can produce diarrhea just like drinking senna leaf tea.
But Celestial Seasonings is cautious. The largest herbal tea company with $10 million annual trade, it sells no teas with banned or suspected substances.
The problem, as the industry sees it, is educating the public in sensible use of herbs, most of which are harmless and inexpensive.
The education process will take years. The first problem is that many of the books and pamphlets sold in health food; stores contain only erratic information about potential harms alongside lengthy statements extolling unproven claims of medicinal benefit. Very few books even contain specific instructions on how one would use the plant, i.e., the part(s) of the plant to use, how to prepare the plant, how much or how often one would use it, etc. One does not get the complete story when using just one source (or even several) for information. A book might list a number of herbs as being "good for the heart," but if these herbs were researched more extensively, one would find that some are so potent that they actually affect the heart's rhythm. Most books don't go into such detail, but obviously, casual or misguided use of such herbs is dangerous.
Health food store operators are often little help. Most, like Peggy Childers, district manager for the National Health Food Central chain in Miami, are careful to say: "We do not prescribe in any way, shape or form."
The potential danger of some plant extracts currently sold in health food stores is in dispute.
Ginseng is the best example. One of the hottest sellers in health food stores, it is reputed as an aphrodisiac and a general health tonic and stimulant.
Doctors use it in China to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, but its only accepted medical use in the United States is in skin ointments. An estimated 5 million to 6 million Americans take ginseng regularly.
A new study by Dr. Ronald Siegel of UCLA found that long-term heavy ginseng users suffered frequently from nervousness, sleeplessness and, most significantly, high blood pressure.
The herbal industry believes those problems were caused more by the caffeine in beverages consumed along with the ginseng.
But no one can say for certain, and even an herbalist such as McCaleb says that studies of the benefits of ginseng have found, in most charitable phrasing, that it has "enhanced placebo effect."
Two other popular herbal items sold in health food stores are camomile tea and alfalfa tea. The herbal industry believes both to be completely safe.
But camomile can produce severe allergic reaction to those allergic to ragweed, and alfalfa has caused problems with barnyard animals: bloating in cattle, retarded growth in chicks, decreased egg production by hens.
The Medical Letter, a newsletter that evaluates drugs for physicians, published in its April 6 issue the most comprehensive listing to date of the dangers of plant products sold in health food stores.
Dr. Walter Lewis of Washington University in St. Louis, a contributor to the article, is bothered by public ignorance of the hazard and upset by the FDA's lack of action.
"They're just absolute idiots," he says of the FDA.
African tribes who use a substance like devil's claw root, reputed to induce labor in pregnant women, control its use better than the U.S. government, which allows its unrestricted sale, he says.
Licorice root in small doses makes a tasty flavoring but in large amounts can cause heart failure. An ulcer drug derived from the root is available by prescription in Europe but not in the United States because of its side-effects.
"The irony," says Lewis, "is that you and I can walk into a health food store and get all we want, completely uncontrolled, and a physician can't dispense it."
Tannin, a substance found in wine and tea, can soothe a sore throat. But the University of Miami's Julia Morton found an atypical incidence of cancer of the esophagus in Curacao, coastal South Carolina and other areas whose inhabitants consumed large amounts of beverages high in tannin. The British put milk in their tea because it neutralizes tannin.
Tannin has produced cancer in animals when injected, but no studies have been completed on its effect when drunk by laboratory animals. The National Cancer Institute does not classify it officially as a carcinogen and has no lab tests scheduled.
Morton believes tannin is no danger if consumed prudently. Still, she has stopped drinking tea in the last few months. Her favorite beverage is water.
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